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Emily Pilloton: Letter from the Aftermath of Tropical Storm Nicole

Editor’s Note: Below, Worldchanging ally Emily Pilloton of Project H, shares her first-hand account of the flooding in Bertie County, North Carolina as a result of Tropical Storm Nicole. Pilloton’s Studio H program is based in Bertie County. While the Studio H shop and studio (where the high school design/build program is taught) survived major damage, many of the students' and Pilloton’s colleagues' homes, along with the majority of downtown Windsor, were flooded or destroyed. If you’d like to support their rebuilding project, or Studio H in general, please consider a donation. All donations are U.S. tax-deductible. Link to donate:

by Emily Pilloton

At our favorite barbecue joint in our home base of rural Bertie County, North Carolina, my partner Matt and I often glance as we leave at the photo posted next to the door. The picture is an aerial shot of Bertie's County seat, Windsor, where Bunn's Barbecue is located. The town is home to just over 2,000 of the county's 20,000 residents, and sits at just 23 feet above sea level. The photograph was taken in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd left the town underwater, homes destroyed, people displaced, downtown turned into a ghost-town. In the photograph, the roof of Bunn's just barely sticks up from the flood water, like a lily pad. Randy, the owner of Bunn's, along with many others in Bertie County, refer to Floyd as the "100 year flood."

But recently, just 11 years after Floyd, I walked out my front door, stood on the front porch of my post-Civil War era home in downtown Windsor, two blocks from Bunn's, and found myself gazing with a sigh at the same lily pad. Bunn's Barbecue's roof, along with the post office's, bank's, and about a dozen small town shop buildings', seemed to be floating in a ten-foot-deep lake that literally appeared overnight. With Bertie County, and Windsor in particular, at low sea levels and lying at the intersection of three rivers that lead to the Albemarle Sound, it should have come as no shock to see the water rise over 14 feet in 36 hours.

As Tropical Storm Nicole passed over the East Coast last week, few people in Bertie County – the place where my organization Project H has relocated to launch Studio H, a high school design/build for community curriculum -- thought it would be the next Floyd. But over the course of three days, we went from, "I wonder if school will be cancelled tomorrow" to "I wonder if we could swim to the grocery store." Matt and I pulled out our camping gear, ran gallons of water through Brita Filters and stored it in buckets, and moved our most precious belongings upstairs. We counted ourselves undeservedly lucky that our house, along with only a few others, had been built just far enough off the ground that the water wasn't ankle deep in our living room yet.

On Friday afternoon and into the evening, the National Guard pulled people from their homes and escorted them to the hospital on the outskirts of town in pontoon boats. We watched the news as a reporter from KCBS called out Bertie County as the single "hardest-hit" county on the East Coast. Matt and I found out that one of our students, AJ, had been evacuated, his house filled with water and probably irreversibly destroyed.

As a designer and builder, my instinct is to go out and fix things. But I found myself feeling helpless as the rescue boats sped by my front door, and instructed people to stay in their homes and be prepared to lose power, water and sewage. That sense of helplessness felt unnatural to me, and in realizing that, I felt for a moment like a spoiled brat. On Saturday morning, I spoke to our neighbor, who told me her husband was in the hospital in Greenville, an hour away, and all she wanted to do was to get in her car and go be with him. We lamented the fact that we couldn't even drive 10 feet out of our own driveways. As the flood levels finally started to fall on Saturday afternoon, the sun came out and I felt guilty noting how beautiful the day was.

Natural disasters might happen unexpectedly, but we know they're an inevitable part of life in a warming world. Yet to see a disaster unfold firsthand, not on television, not in the news, not even as a visitor to post-Earthquake Haiti, but as it happened to my house and my neighbors and my students, was a first for me.

My instinct, as a designer, is to think about prevention, and how to keep this from happening again. But economically and logistically for a poor and disconnected place like Bertie County, that may be a pipedream. My next instinct is to repair and recover, which will no doubt be a long-term effort. As our students come back to class, we'll talk to them about what they need, what their families need, and what downtown needs to start over.

But beyond these two instincts, the lesson learned and the sentiment in the air is a kind of clarity that only comes when you are helpless enough to identify what really matters. It is a clarity that reminds you of the potential of human ability to be resilient, compassionate, and clever. And it is a reminder of the power of the analog, of eye contact and handshakes, of wood and metal, and food and water, rather than text messages and re-tweets. In the coming weeks, I hope to see Bertie County's citizens breathe and reboot, and with a new sense of clarity, make smart decisions about our collective future. Already this morning, I've seen folks helping neighbors to hose down their furniture, and staring down the street at Bunn's, asking how they might help Randy get his kitchen back to normalcy.

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